That’s how former maid turned bestselling author Stephanie Land wants people to support domestic workers, who are often invisible in American life, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, Land speaks widely about issues affecting domestic workers, single mothers and people living in poverty, and her experience is more relevant than ever. As people cloister in their homes and practice social distancing, 72% of domestic workers report being out of work, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. And 70% said they weren’t sure if they’d be re-hired after the pandemic.
Having spent years on her knees scrubbing toilets, Land explains why she thinks you should still pay any domestic workers who help your family — a category that’s far larger than you may think. And she explains how she’s using her platform to speak on behalf of maids who, like she once did, endure low wages and poor working conditions to keep America clean.
The following Q&A is lightly edited for length and clarity.
How long did you clean houses and what led you into that type of work?
I started cleaning houses in 2008 and then quit in the beginning of 2014, so about six years off and on. I got into that type of work because of the recession, actually. I just could not find a job. And I’d never had that problem before. I think the reason why I couldn’t find a job is because I had to work during daycare hours, traditionally 7 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. I think there was a time that I was averaging about one resume submitted a week, and just could not even get a call back. So I fell into housecleaning full time.
When we talk about domestic workers, what does that mean?
With the pandemic upon us now, how would you recommend that people engage with domestic workers they’ve previously hired?
But also pay them what you can. I still feel that if it was in your budget last month, if you had house cleaning or care work or something in your budget at the beginning of March and you’re able to keep your job and your finances haven’t drastically changed, then continue to pay them as long as you’re able to or until they’re able to get some kind of unemployment or get some kind of other help if they can. They are still a worker in your home. They just can’t work right now.
As a house cleaner, I not only felt very invisible, but I felt extremely disposable. That was a more traumatic feeling as far as being a low-wage worker who needs every single dollar in order to survive. That disposable feeling really makes you tread lightly on any decision you make. Because you’re constantly in this survival mode.
How would you want clients, or society in general, to treat you now if you were a house cleaner?
With my clients, I would want the lines of communication to still be open, and I think I would want the dignity of being treated like a human being and not necessarily like a member of their family. Just to feel like my client or my employer cares about me and recognizes that before, pre-pandemic, that if I lost a day of work it could mean not being able to pay rent. And now, after not being able to work for three or four weeks, I can’t even imagine what that would have been like when I was in that position.
I’m thinking about all of these house cleaners who have now been out of work for about a month. What if they had already used up that three month time period and don’t qualify for food stamps right now? I would hope on a state level and a federal level that people are taking that into consideration and boosting the SNAP programs and Medicaid and all of those safety net programs to make it an actual safety net.
There may be 2.5 million people in some version of that position right now.
When you were able to go to hotels, how did you treat your maids or housekeepers?
I have a whole thing that I do. It takes about 10 minutes before I leave a hotel room when I’m on the road as a public speaker: I ball up all the sheets on the bed, all the bedding, even take pillow cases off the pillows, and stack those next to the headboard. Then I do a sweep and make sure that I put all of the garbage in the garbage can.
I make sure to wipe up any weird hairs that are left around and ball up all the towels and put them in the bathtub. I usually try to leave, if I can, a $10 tip every day per person who stayed in the hotel room. If I have one of my daughters or my spouse with me, then I leave 20 bucks a day.
Why do you think it’s important to do that?
Because I know that they’re getting paid minimum wage, and it’s not affordable, and I don’t think many people tip. I want to at least give them a good hourly wage for that period of time.
Is there a particular relationship that stands out to you now in your post-cleaning days?
I eventually hired her to do a move out clean. She was working through back pain in the same way that I used to and kept apologizing for being slow. She said, “I’m sorry for being late. I really hurt my back this weekend.” It struck me that I had always told myself that I would never do this, and there I was hiring someone. So I was really happy that I could pay her more than she asked and even gave her a tip.
What is it about your personal story that has resonated with so many people?
It’s partly because I’m a “likeable poor person,” and I say that because I am the rags-to-riches story that we all have come to know and love. I am successful and educated, and I am no longer in the depths of poverty. I have worked my way out of it. People can look at my story and say that I bootstrapped my way out of poverty. We like to hear those success stories because those are the ones that we latch onto. That’s the American myth that we live by and that’s what we repeatedly tell people in poverty.
But I also think it is largely because I’m white and grew up middle class and had a privileged background. We just historically don’t listen to the personal narratives and stories of black and brown people. It goes as far as the publishing industry and who we choose to publish in all aspects of media. Every time I get up to speak and do an interview, or even do a reading, I always try to work this into the subject and just say, “It should not be me standing up here. You should be listening to people in your community who are black and brown and who have experienced systemic racism and systemic poverty.”
How have you tried to use the book to catalyze change around some of these issues?
I’m trying to get a copy of my book, with people’s personal stories attached to it, to every Congressional representative. I honestly have 200 books piled in boxes in my office. We’re just at the point where we’re going to start mailing, which is pretty exciting for me, because we’ve been working for so long on this campaign that I started called #Maid2Reps. That’s one thing that I’ve been trying to do with just the physical book, is just to get it on the desk of every senator and representative.
What does it feel like having your home be turned into a TV set and your family into TV characters for Netflix?
I think what executive producer John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing” and “Shameless”) and showrunner Molly Smith Metzler (“Orange is the New Black,” “Shameless”) are doing with my story is really amazing. Right now it’s set straight to series with Netflix, so we know season one is definitely going to happen.
What they’re doing is to hopefully turn it into an anthology, where it’ll start season one with my story and the next season will start all over again with a person of color’s story. I met with them in late February and got a chance to meet all the writers and meet face-to-face with all the people who are writing this story for the screen and (my daughter) Mia was with me. It was an incredible experience.
They said that they are fictionalizing my story quite a bit to the point where my name and Mia’s name will be changed. I have not only really loved what they’re doing with the book and what they’re choosing to focus on, but I also really liked that aspect, that it will be fictionalized a little bit more. It’ll help me separate myself from this story that I’m seeing played out. I think it’ll be more fun for Mia too, maybe not as close to home for her. Because I can imagine after the stars come out of her eyes and she sees who’s playing her, it’s going to follow her. I like that it’s based on my book instead of a play-by-play account of what I wrote in the book.
Some of the best book-to-movie adaptations for me have been the ones that were a lot more imaginative. It’s kind of boring to stick with the book exactly.
When they first sold it as a series I was kind of worried, because I thought, “Oh God, what would you do?” I felt that by season five I’d be so tired of watching myself. I love how they have it set up. When I was talking to producers and people who did just want to represent it cinematically on a big movie screen, I just heard that guy’s voice on the trailer saying, “One white woman’s dip into poverty and how she worked her way out.” It seemed horrible. I absolutely loved John Wells, and I got to talk to (producer) Margot Robbie on the phone. From the beginning I’ve always loved their vision. And they just keep getting better.
Is that who will play your character?
No, they don’t know. Well, now, I totally don’t know. It’s all dependent on people’s schedules, and now who knows what people’s schedules are because all the productions are shut down. I haven’t asked in a long time. I do know that the writers were still meeting in Zoom meetings to work on the script, but I don’t know, hopefully it still happens.